Light Trails of Rotating Helicopter Blades by LIFE Photographer Andreas Feininger

light trails helicopter

Andreas Bernhard Lyonel Feininger was a prolific American photographer. He was also a writer that delved on photography techniques. He is best known for his dramatic black-and-white images of Manhattan and for studies on structures of natural objects. Feininger was born in Paris to France Julia Berg and Lyonel Feininger who was a painter from New York City. His father’s family emigrated from Germany thru his great-grandfather to the United States. Feininger consequently grew up in Germany where he took up architecture. In 1936 however, he moved to Sweden, gave up architecture and began to be engrossed with the camera. Shortly before the outbreak of World War II, he immigrated to the United Sates where he started his career as a freelance photographer in 1939. His tenure with Life magazine began in 1943, and he was part of the staff until 1962. Feininger rose to prominence with his photographs of the Big Apple and other subjects involving nature and science. He hardly delved into portraiture or human interest themes.

This 1949 series of helicopter images is an example of his genius. He captured these incredible photos of U.S. Navy helicopters as they took off from the ground into the night sky in Anacostia, Maryland.

helicopter light trails

It is amazing how he achieved these clean, sharp images with the camera technology of those days. The light tipped blades rotating allowed Feininger to capture these movements with long exposures against the backdrop of the dark night sky. The rotating blades of the U.S. Navy choppers created these dazzling swirls of light forming lines and circles as if orchestrated. Instead of imagining the roar of these ascending helicopters, the visuals suggest graceful machines creating these spectacular shapes in the sky.

long exposure helicopter blades

These pioneering photos formed part of Feininger’s work as a lens man for LIFE magazine in the early years. During his sterling career with the magazine, he became most renowned for his portfolio of spectacular black and white images of the Manhattan landscape. He was so incredibly multi-talented developing a wide-ranging body of work that consisted of 340 assignments for the iconic magazine from 1943 until 1962.

manhattan skyline
New York Harbor and midtown, looking straight down bustling 42nd Street, taken with the aid of a 40-inch Dallmeyer telephoto lens two miles away, from New Jersey, 1946.
chicago warehouse
Pouring ingots at an Illinois steel plant, 1944.
frozen niagara falls
Niagara Falls in winter, 1956.
statue of liberty during a blackout
The Statue of Liberty seen during a WWII blackout, 1942.

See the astonishing helicopter photos and some of Feininger’s work for LIFE here.

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Patricia Ramos

Patricia Ramos

I am a freelance photographer who is no stranger to smudged lenses, long hours in front of the computer, heavy camera bags (and the back aches that ensued) and missing lens caps. If you know what I'm talking about, you probably have as much love and passion for photography as I do.